Narcos Season-Premiere Recap: Meet the New Bosses

Photo: Juan Pablo Gutierrez/Netflix


The Kingpin Strategy Season 3 Episode 1
Editor's Rating 4 stars

Everybody’s favorite DEA agent finally wants to give up his hard-living lifestyle. The first thing that’s gotta go? His beloved cigarettes. When we first catch up with Javier Peña at a Laredo wedding far from his usual Colombian milieu, he tells an ex-girlfriend that he’s ditching smoking in favor of “doing the Nicorette thing.” That doesn’t last long, of course. By the end of the Narcos season premiere, Peña is back in Colombia and pilfering a cigarette from his latest fling’s purse.

Much like Peña himself, Netflix has an old habit it can’t kick. When Narcos started in 2015 with a focus on drug lord Pablo Escobar and the DEA agents who hunted him, it seemed sure to end with Escobar’s violent death in 1993. But after Escobar was gunned down on a Medellín rooftop at the end of season two, Netflix renewed Narcos for two more years anyway. Fortunately, judging by this episode, the new season justifies a post-Pablo existence.

Escobar’s dead, thanks in part to Peña, but the drug business hasn’t changed at all. Cocaine shipments still make it to the United States and innocent people are still getting killed along the way. Even Navegante — the laconic, Tommy Bahama–favoring enforcer who started the series with Escobar’s Medellín Cartel, only to betray them for the Cali Cartel — is still kicking around.

When last we saw Peña, he had just committed career suicide by trying to take down the Cali bosses, who were helping the U.S. government find Escobar at the time. For his efforts, Peña saw his own shady underworld connections splashed out in a U.S. newspaper exposé. Without Escobar to keep them in check, though, the more professional “gentlemen of Cali” are taking over the whole country — which means they’re becoming a more tempting target for the DEA. After a quick Laredo send-off from guest star Edward James Olmos — who does his usual gravelly father thing while growling, ”So … Cali … ” — Peña is back on his bullshit.

In Narcos-world, new villains mean a new montage. We’re reintroduced to the Cali bosses: Pacho (the vicious one), Gilberto (the avuncular one), and Miguel (the emo one). There’s also a new Cali partner: Chepe, the head of New York operations. He’s the fun one.

Peña is under the impression that Cali’s previous alliance with the Get Escobar Gang won’t protect them this time around, quipping in the narration that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend, until he becomes my enemy again.” But it soon becomes clear Peña has returned to fight a war no one else wants. Colombia’s new president is desperate to keep a lid on drug violence. The U.S. ambassador warns Peña that the run-and-gun tactics he used against Escobar — like the time he orchestrated a nightclub massacre — won’t fly anymore.

Not even the Cali drug lords want to put up much of a fight. As Peña learns from his sometimes ally Bill, the local CIA station chief, Cali’s leaders are in the final stages of a negotiation with the government to give up their drug operations in exchange for serving token prison terms and keeping their massive fortunes. That’s just fine with the U.S. government, Peña soon discovers, as no one is eager to admit that the cocaine trade has flourished despite Escobar’s death. It turns out that he wasn’t really called back to take on Cali at all — he’s just supposed to use his famous name to make the amnesty deal more credible.

Before Peña can make his usual complaints about the rule of law, though, CIA Bill cuts him off: “If there were any justice in this world, Javier, you’d be in jail.”

Peña isn’t the only one mad about the amnesty deal. Gilberto’s gala announcement that the cartel will disband in six months is meant to be good news. They’re going to go legit, he assures them, just like bootlegger turned presidential papa Joseph Kennedy! Instead, Gilberto’s announcement inspires a round of grumbling from lieutenants, who record all of it and deliver the news back to the cartel leaders via Cali’s equivalent of the Stasi. “Fuck Joseph Kennedy, whoever that asshole is,” says one unhappy underling.

The recordings quickly set off a round of internal cartel bloodletting, including the murder of lower-level drug lord Salazar. It’s a killing that reflects more about Pacho’s personal grudge and Miguel’s crush on the guy’s wife than any actual risk to the cartel’s leaders, though. Narcos keeps coming back to the idea of all-powerful drug lords undone only by their own passions, an idea that’s underlined when Pacho publicly draws and quarters Salazar via motorcycle … but only after their steamy make-out session.

It’s exactly the kind of public killing that should provide Peña with an opening to take down the drug lord. Too bad he only has six months to do it.

Cartel Club

• I’m back on assignment recapping Narcos for Vulture this season. Last time, an anonymous reader sent me a video of them snorting coke off Pablo’s grave, so I have high hopes for this round.

• The cartel party is preceded by a meeting between what look to be police officers planning a raid on the event. They look like cops, down to the polo shirts that recall last season’s Search Bloc police detail.

• Narcos lets us believe the police are preparing to raid the party and bring the drug lords to justice, complete with the stereotypical “last day on the job” character. In a nice bit of irony, though, the heavies are revealed to really just be cartel security.

• Peña tries his wounded-rogue-cop thing on his ex-girlfriend in Laredo … only to see it flop when he’s introduced to her husband and two kids. Can’t win ‘em all, Javier!

• Murphy won’t be around to help Peña out this time. Actor Boyd Holbrook, who played original Narcos protagonist Steve Murphy, won’t return this season. His plots, which mostly consisted of fighting with his wife and feeling gloomy, will not be missed. Remember when he adopted a kid?

• Miguel’s fascination with Salazar’s new widow is bad news for her, given what generally happens to pretty young women whenever Narcos feels like raising the dramatic stakes.

• Peña has quite a reputation in Colombia. As one DEA agent tells it, “Couldn’t drink it or fuck it, dude wasn’t interested.”

Narcos Season-Premiere Recap: Meet the New Bosses